Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Dazzle Me, Obama!

The first post-RNC convention polls are coming out, and the McCain-Palin ticket has received a big bounce. USA Today/Gallup gives McCain-Palin a 6-point edge over Obama-Biden among registered voters, and a 10-point edge among likely voters. The Republican team is trying to wrestle the mantle of "change" away from Obama, and the public may be buying it.

Faced with their first "executive" decision--selecting a Vice-Presidential running mate--Barack Obama played it safe while John McCain played the maverick. Obama squandered a huge wave of anticipation by going with an old standby, while John McCain stole all the headlines with his surprise choice. In the VP selection game, McCain outmaneuvered Obama, although of course McCain had the advantage in that he picked last.

Obama needs to do something to recapture the momentum his campaign had going into August. McCain is a first-rate campaigner, seasoned by many battles in which he upset rivals with far more money and media attention. Obama has a first-rate campaign working for him as well, but the strategy that won Obama the Democratic nomination relied on big victories in small caucuses--a tactic which has no analog in the general election--and Obama himself has never faced a serious contest in a general election.

I still believe Obama will win out, because at the end of the day McCain has nothing to offer but failed policies and empty promises, but Obama needs to do something dramatic to regain the lead. He needs to do something dazzling. Obama cannot afford to play it safe anymore, if he ever could. This is no longer Obama's election to lose. It has become his election to win.


Raised By Republicans said...

Dr. S,

You are right that Obama has to step it up. I'm not ready to panic yet but it does look like McCain got a bounce out of the RNC. Gallup leans a to the right but 10 points is probably not due entirely to bias. Time to kick it into high gear.

Also, you are wrong about several things. You are wrong about Obama's strategy in the primaries. He was not focussed on a small number of states, he was prepared to contest all the states (something Hillary's campaign staff was not - just ask Mark Penn). The caucus states only made up 12% of the delegates, Obama could not have won if he only focused on those. But Hillary could certainly lose if she ignored them - which she largely did. You are also wrong about Obama never having faced a tough national campaign. What did we just go through from January to June?! Obama started that period more than 20 points down in the national polls to Hillary but ended up beating her - and not just because he won "the small caucus states.",8599,1738331,00.html

As for McCain's tough underdog campaign, that holds for his campaign in the primaries - he really pulled off a major comeback there, although he started out way ahead, blew his lead briefly then got it back - so not quite the come from behind scenario Obama had.

But his Senatorial campaigns have largely been meaningly victory laps for an incumbent Republican in a Republican state. So if you are going to give McCain credit for winning a tough campaign, you have to give Obama credit for the same thing.

I also think you are wrong to imply that Biden was a poor choice. The alternatives you suggested earlier were either unlikely to accept (like Gore or Powell) or quite bad (like Baraba Lee).

McCain-Palin just got done with the RNC and Palin has yet to be interviewed by the press by any of the several scandals that are brewing up there or her mixed fiscal record.

But again, you are right that Obama does need to step it up. He's got the money and the 50 state strategy to do it.

Back to the VP thing. You raise an interesting question with McCain's second mover advantage. No matter who Obama picked, McCain would be able to pick the option that best countered Obama's move.

Dr. Strangelove said...

RbR writes: "You are also wrong about Obama never having faced a tough national campaign. What did we just go through from January to June?!"

I reply: I presume you know the difference between a "national campaign" and a "general election," so try to read a little more carefully before you reply. Obama has never faced a serious contest in a general election. All of his serious contests have been in Democratic primaries. General election contests are different, with different voters.

RbR writes: "You are wrong about Obama's strategy in the primaries. He was not focused on a small number of states, he was prepared to contest all the states..."

I reply: Of course Obama was prepared to contest all the states! Nevertheless, it is indisputable that Obama's strategy relied on big victories in small caucuses. Even without MI/FL, Hillary still edged Obama in the count of delegates from the primary states, 1374-1364. Obama gained the upper hand because he won the caucus states by a landslide, 335-178. It also helped that these states tended to vote early. (Yes, I counted TX primary and caucus separately).

RbR writes, "I also think you are wrong to imply Biden was a poor choice. The alternatives you suggested earlier were either unlikely to accept (like Gore or Powell) or quite bad (like Barbara Lee)."

I reply: Yes, I admit Barbara Lee would have been a bad choice. But that does not make Biden a good choice. There is a reason voters never got behind him in either of his Presidential runs. Among my suggestions you neglected to mention were Max Cleland and Michael Bloomberg. And plenty of others have of course been mentioned in the press, like Govs. Tim Kaine and Bob Schweitzer. And then of course there was Hillary.

As for whether McCain is "seasoned"
in the general election, you are right that most of McCain's Senatorial campaigns were victory laps. But McCain did at least face a decent contest for his first run for the Senate, and he faced another challenge in the wake of the Keating Five scandal (something I hope we hear more about...!) Obama, however, had no serious general election opposition when he ran for the Illinois Senate, and in his only statewide general election, Obama trounced joke candidate Alan Keyes by the whopping margin of 70%-27%.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Gallup had Obama with an 8 point lead last week. It's volatile. It's the only poll showing McCain with a lead outside of the margin of error, btw. I'm concerned, of course, but I'm trying to be as realistic about these numbers as I was about the Obama surge last week. The weekend's bad economic news will soon overwhelm the Palin celebrity bump. Because the bottom line is that this election is about a bad economy and a nation that is disgusted with the incumbent Republicans.

Raised By Republicans said...

Dr. S. You have this caucus thing completely backwards.

The strategy story from the primary was not whether Obama ignored the primary states (he couldn't have won if he had de-emphasized 88% of the delegates they way you imply that he did). It is simply not the case that Obama was not seriously contesting the primary states. He won several of them and won big in a few of them too (such as Wisconsin). In others he lost the popular vote but either tied or won the delegate count (like New Hampshire and Nevada). Even where he lost big he often did better in terms of delegates (like in Ohio and South Dakota).

Rather the story was that Hillary's supposedly polished and professional staff completely blew it with regard to the caucus states and badly mismanaged their funds. Mark Penn wrongly anticipated three things. First, they assumed that the caucus states wouldn't matter and did not get "ground operations" in place in those states early enough to make a difference. The result was that they failed to contest 12% of the delegates as strongly as they should have. Second, he wrongly believed that the nomination would sewn up by the end of January (so he wasn't concerned about having cash on hand after that - and they were in debt for much of the campaign as a result). Third, he wrongly believed that delegates were awarded on a winner take all basis. Obama won because his campaign had more money down the stretch and because they played the delegate game better - even in states where he lost.

Obama has a very savvy team. It is disingenuous to say that Obama only won the primaries because he won a bunch of "small" states that don't matter as much in the general. It's simply not supported by the facts.

USwest said...

THe downside to the polling is not only did McCain pick his VP last, he also had the last convention. So of course that is what people are talking about at the moment.

That said, Freddie and Fannie are now nationalized. And that will get people's attention, focusing more campaign talk on the economy.

The Law Talking Guy said...

It is worth noting that Gallup's own tracking poll shows only a 5% McCain lead, while Rasmussen's tracking poll, and all other polls conducted over the same period, show a tie.

The Law Talking Guy said...

A spate of new polls were just released within the last hour. All showed McCain/Obama tied or McCain exactly 2points ahead. So Gallup is a bit of an outlier. The GOP convention bounce was more modest than all that.

The Law Talking Guy said...

McCain has not had a contested general election since before the internet. Frankly, the most seasoned politician of the four candidates in terms of contested general elections is Sarah Palin. Of course, a contested election in Illinois or Arizona is totally different from a national general contested election anyway. I think it's fair to say that the experience of the Obama campaign team going nationwide this past year is the best nationwide experience any of them have. McCain, by contrast, only campaigned in a handful of states. And he didn't so much as win as be the last man standing.

Dr. Strangelove said...

RbR: Of course Obama was prepared to contest all the states. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that Obama's strategy ultimately relied on big victories in small caucuses. That is to say, Obama's margin of victory came from the caucus states; without the caucuses, Obama would have lost the pledged delegate count.

The data support that conclusion. I offered a few figures above, but the result is even clearer if you look at the original election returns: Hillary led 1376-1350-12 in the primaries as a whole, while Obama led 321-180-15 in the caucuses as a whole. (Note that this count excludes MI/FL entirely.) Obama ran a brilliant campaign, and contested the primaries very well, but he needed to triumph in the caucuses to get across the finish line.

You claim that Obama played the "delegate game" better, even in the states where he lost. But the data suggest otherwise. Had the delegates been awarded purely in proportion to the reported election returns (rather than the complex rules used), Hillary would have just barely won the primaries 1322-1320-97, and her loss in the caucuses would have been by a greater margin: 322-173-19. In other words, if anything, Hillary did a slightly better job of playing the "delegate game" in the states.

Hillary, of course, failed to put proper effort into the caucuses. Her strategy ignored the caucuses and put all her effort into the primaries. Obama's strategy was more balanced and it succeeded. He did not quite beat Hillary on primary turf, but he did not need to: the caucuses gave him the edge.

My basic point is that Hillary's strategy was more of a general election-type strategy, whereas Obama's strategy was desigined and optimized for the Democratic primary system. Obama needs to change gears now, to run a truly general election-type campaign--and he has never really had to do that before. But I believe he can do it. A little more pizazz and a little less "steady as she goes" would be good just about now.

Raised By Republicans said...

"indisputable" I do not think this word means what you think it means.

Of course it is disputable that his STRATEGY depended on the caucuses. Even if his VICTORY depended on them, it doesn't mean he based his strategy on that 12% of the states.

What you are saying that Obama won DESPITE intentionally not emphasizing contesting 88% of the delegates. That makes no sense. It is unbelievable on the face of it.

What I am saying is that Clinton lost BECAUSE her campaign intentionally did not emphasize 12% of the delegates.

Put another way. If Clinton had fought in the caucus states harder, Obama could not have won. But she didn't. Oops.

Dr. S. Your revisionism on what happened in the primaries is mind blowing. Go back and check the sources I cited in my posts about Why Hillary Lost. I'm on very solid ground with my argument.

Dr. Strangelove said...

RbR: I believe we are actually saying similar things.

I say Obama won the nomination because he put more effort into the caucuses than Hillary. You say Hillary lost because she put less effort into the caucuses than Obama.

I say Obama deliberately poured resources into the small caucuses because he knew Hillary's machine would had the edge in many of the expensive, big primary states on Super Tuesday. You say Hillary deliberately ignored the caucuses out of vanity and misapprehension of the Democratic primary proportionality rules.

I give Obama credit. You give Hillary blame. We are both right.

Look... If a major candidate puts no resources into a contest, one should expect a lower turnout. What we witnessed, however, was incredible, massive, record-breaking turnout across the board at the caucuses, fueled by young, first-time voters. We saw busloads of college students deluge town halls and meeting-places in places like Maine and Wyoming. We watched hapless party officials struggling with unprecedented lines out the door, stretching the voting long into the night! It was amazing! And the overwhelming majority of these first-timers caucused for Obama, netting him 2-1 and 3-1 advantages in the final tally.

While it is certainly true that Hillary put little effort into the caucuses, it is equally clear that Obama also made a huge play to win the caucuses with young, first-time caucus-goers--a novel strategy that had never been tried before on this scale. The numbers bear this out.

Raised By Republicans said...

With respect, Dr. S. what you say in the previous cooment is slightly different from where you started. You started by saying that Obama's strategy was based overwhelmingly on small caucus states - strongly implying that he was poorly prepared to contest all 50 states in the general election because of that. In short, you were not ONLY arguing that Obama paid more attention to the caucus states than did Clinton (an assertion with which I could easily agree regardless of the credit/blame framing). You were saying that he both gave more attention to caucuses and less to primaries. That doesn't hold up.

Even if he lost many of the primary states in the popular vote, his close vote results and even closer delegate counts from those states (with a few later exceptions where there were Clinton blow outs), suggest that he was contesting these states vigorously - even if not as successfully as with the caucus states.

What I am trying to point out is that Obama's campaign, unlike Clinton's, was not based on a starting presumption that there would be some states that simply would never be seriously contested.

Dr. Strangelove said...

With respect, RbR, I am precisely where I started. You just finally get it. Until now you have consistently misunderstood or misrepresented what I wrote. All I said about this in the original post was:

"Obama has a first-rate campaign working for him as well, but the strategy that won Obama the Democratic nomination relied on big victories in small caucuses--a tactic which has no analog in the general election..."

From this single sentence, you decided I must be accusing Obama of not having seriously contested the primary states. I still have no idea where you got that notion. That is kind of insulting, really. Furthermore, you continued to press that odd claim even after two additional comments where I wrote, "Of course Obama was prepared to contest all the states!"

Obama made a massive push to win big in the Democratic caucuses by marshalling record-breaking first-time voter turnout. That seems obvious. The data is equally unambiguous that without those victories, Obama would not have won a majority of the pledged delegates. Why is it so difficult to believe Obama's team knew how critical those caucus victories would be?

I believe Obama pursued a resource-allocation strategy optimized to the Democratic primary system. In particular, I believe Obama deliberately poured unprecedented effort into the caucuses because his savvy team realized that under the Democratic Party's unusual proportionality rules (going down to the Congressional District level!) the net advantage one could gain in terms of pledged delegates depended more on the margin of victory within each state than on the size of that state. This is of course the exact opposite of the Electoral College system.

Hence it seems obvious to me that Obama needs to pursue a different strategy in a winner-take-all election.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Two polls out today - Rasmussen tracking and WSJ, have Obama ahead by 1 point. I think the polling data (where this thread started) are back about where they were three or four weeks ago. The McCain campaign managed, with the Palin pick, to blunt Obama's bounce. But McCain is not leading this race.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Dr.S., I don't think the historical evidence (uncovered years from now) will show that Obama focused on caucuses as a strategy. I think it will show that Obama focused equally on both caucuses on primaries, with full pressure on both, and his campaign assumed that Clinton was doing the same. Clinton didn't. She focused only on primaries, where she fought Obama to a draw. By ignoring caucuses, she lost big. Obama's camp, I wager, assumed that their caucus push was to counter Clinton's caucus push: it wasn't a special strategy and they didn't think they had a special advantage in caucuses.

Dr. Strangelove said...

An article in the Boston Globe supports what I have been saying. ("Small-state plan pays dividends for Obama" Sasha Issenberg, May 4, 2008, Boston Globe).

The article quotes Obama campaign officials claiming they had planned as early as last summer that they would put "extra organization" into the small caucuses to make use of the proportionality rules. Here is an excerpt:

"Last July, as Barack Obama's campaign began considering how to allocate resources among the two dozen states that would vote on Feb. 5, Jon Carson [Obama's national voter-contact director] realized that some of the biggest gains could come from the smallest states... What has now become a structural advantage for Obama had its roots as a tactical gambit conceived over a series of meetings last June at his Chicago headquarters... Obama's commitment to small states came often at the expense of large ones..."

Raised By Republicans said...

"Obama has a first-rate campaign working for him as well, but the STRATEGY that won Obama the Democratic nomination relied on big victories in small caucuses--a tactic which has no analog in the general election..." (emphasis added)

When you say "the strategy that won Obama the Democratic nomination relied on big victories in small caucuses" you are saying that Obama intended to win big only there. That's a stretch.

Even if he DID win only in the caucus states it is a much stronger statement that you make. You say it was his strategy all along. I counter by saying there is strong evidence that the strategy was much broader than that - that it included sophisticated analyses of what it would take to maximize delegate counts in all states, not just the caucus states.

Also, we know from the public statements of Clinton's staff that they really did only focus on the primary states and that Mark Penn did not understand the way the delegates were apportioned and that their STRATEGY reflected these priorities and misunderstandings.

So you really are making two assertions alternately. One is that Obama won the caucus states big but not the primary states. That's an empirical fact. But the second statement you make is about STRATEGY. That requires evidence of intent which you do not have.

With your latest comment you are making yet a third argument. Now you are arguing about small vs big states. But as you know there were big states with caucuses (Texas) and small states with primaries (New Hampshire and many of the Southern states).

The Law Talking Guy said...

Sasha Issenberg ads: "Clinton's campaign approached the day as an insurmountable hurdle for Obama and former senator John Edwards, assuming that only a nationally established candidate could have the stature and resources to compete in a de-facto national primary."

I am not sure that Obama understood ex ante that Clinton would behave that way. I still think that, until fairly late in the day, Obama's campaign team assumed that they were playing catchup, i.e., that they were not the only ones to realize that it was worth investing money in small states as well as in just the big ones. I bet that David Plouffe thought Hillary was going to do that too. Only as it came close to Super Tuesday, did they begin to realize how much of an advantage they might have if Clinton was not really competing in the primaries.

Raised By Republicans said...

I think LTG meant to say "... advantage they might have if Clinton was not really competing in the small primaries."

When he talks about the Obama campaign's ex ante beliefs about what the Clitnon campaign would do, I think LTG gets to the crux of the disagreement between Dr. S and the two of us about how we explain the observation that Obama did much better in caucuses and in small states (both primaries and caucuses).

Dr. S seems to be implying that Obama thought he could win by concentrating on a small subset of states (alternately defined as caucus states or small states). And that therefore Obama is particularly poorly prepared to contest a national election in the general.

NOTE: the critical point here is NOT which states Obama actually won and by how much. It's about where Obama committed resources.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Yup. I argue winning big in the caucuses was Obama's strategy all along. As for evidence of intent, I did a quick web search and the Issenberg article (cited above) provides it. The article quotes Obama campaign officials saying their campaign decided in summer 2007 that they would put extra effort into the small caucuses (as opposed to large primaries) on Super Tuesday to maximize their delegate count, for precisely the reasons I stated. There is no "third argument" here about large vs. small states. (The article uses the phrases "small state" and "caucus state" loosely and interchangeably because, on Super Tuesday--the article's focus--those two sets were essentially the same.)

Speaking of evidence... Unless I missed it, I have yet to see those alleged public statements from Mark Penn purporting to show that the Clinton campaign actually misunderstood the basic apportionment rules of the Democratic primary system. That is an astonishing assertion. Surely it is simpler to assume that the Clinton camp knew the apportionment rules like everyone else did, but the Clinton camp was overconfident and figured they would just win by brute force in big primary states.

It puzzles me that LTG and RbR continue to insist Obama's astonishing sweep of the caucuses (with massive turnout of first-time caucus-goers) was accidental! Why is it so offensive to believe that Obama's camp saw an opening and took it? Why is it so important to believe Obama's shattering successes in the caucuses was due only to Hillary's failures?

I am further baffled that LTG would bet Plouffe thought he was playing catch-up the whole time. Huh?? Do you really think the Obama camp did not realize their investment in states like Idaho and Alaska was indeed unprecedented? Do you really think Obama's many operatives in such states just failed to notice the lack of operatives from Hillary or Edwards or anyone else? Come on.

Raised By Republicans said...

Dr. S.

We are not saying that Obama's sweep of the caucuses are accidental. Rather we object to the clear implication of your arguments that his nomination victory should be somehow discounted because of it. You insist on arguing that he never contested big states - but the spending levels suggest otherwise. He out spent Clinton significantly in many big states, including those on Super Tuesday.

If all you were saying were "Obama won big in the caucuses and won many but not most of the primaries and kept it close in most primaries in which he lost." There'd be no debate. But your argument(s) from the start has been framed as a criticism of the Obama campaign's competence and preparedness to run a national campaign in all states.

We are not arguing that Obama's success in the caucus states is due ONLY to Hillary's campaign choking. Rather we are arguing that Obama contested both types of contests in all sizes of states albeit with varied results and that if we can identify one campaign that explicitly wrote off entire states, it was Hillary's not Obama's.

As for the statements about Mark Penn having blown it, I posted on this subject in some detail several months ago (title Why Hillary Lost). In that post, I included a link to the following story:,8599,1738331,00.html

See especially items 2 and 3. The statement is not from Mark Penn but rather from another close Clinton advisor, Harold Ickes, about Mark Penn.

Dr. Strangelove said...

"You insist on arguing that he never contested big states"

Nope. Never said it. In fact, I have several times said the opposite. Of course IObama contested the big states. I already said that twice. How many times do I have to say it?? Drop it, RbR.

"the clear implication of your arguments [is] that his nomination victory should be somehow discounted"

Nope. Never said it. Never meant it either. Obama's victory was clear and even clever. I have said that repeatedly as well, if you would bother to read what I actually write instead of just answering the imaginary Dr. S in your head. But you are so darned sensitive about Obama that you treat anything less than unalloyed praise as veiled criticism. It makes it impossible to have a reasoned discussion with you.

I have made a good case that the Obama campaign deliberately, strategically chose to make an unprecedented national push to win the Democratic caucuses. YES, Obama also contested the primaries!! Obama had so much cash and the caucuses were so comparatively inexpensive (i.e., compared to media markets in NY and CA) that Obama could afford to greatly increase his level of effort in the small caucus states with only minimal cost to his effort in the primaries. AND YES, Hillary ignored most of the caucuses (which I have admitted many many many times) threby making Obama's job there easier.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Actually, Dr.S, there is evidence from memos from Mark Penn that he actually didn't understand the rules properly. Reports are that Ickes was galled to hear Penn say that CA and others were WTA states. Also, the Atlantic has published info recently showing misunderstanding of the rules.

The implication I get from you, Dr.S., is that you think Obama concentrated on (small) caucuses while Clinton concentrated on (more democratic and bigger) primaries. I think the facts will show that Obama won because he took *both* seriously, while Clinton only took the primaries seriously.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I read the article LTG and RbR pointed me to (re Ickes' concern that Mark Penn did not understand the rules) and I see that you are both correct: there is decent evidence that Penn actually misunderstood the rules at the outset. (And that is shocking on many levels!) While the article also notes that Penn's misconception was corrected, there is no question that Hillary's strategy remained focused strongly on the big prize states. We are in 100% agreement about Hillary's strategy and its failings.

As to whether Obama pursued a smart strategy that relied on big victories in small caucuses... I have already provided one article already to support that notion. Here is another article, this one from the Wall Street Journal (quoted for free at the Democratic Underground). And here is another article, from the Washington Post. An excerpt:

"Almost from the beginning, Hillary Rodham Clinton's superior name recognition and her sway with state party organizations convinced Barack Obama's brain trust that a junior senator from Illinois was not going to be able to challenge the Clinton political machine head-on. The insurgent strategy the group devised instead was to virtually cede the most important battlegrounds of the Democratic nomination fight to Clinton, using precision targeting to minimize her delegate hauls, while going all out to crush her in states where Democratic candidates rarely ventured."

I think WP greatly overstates the magnitude of Obama's strategic focus, but it supports what I have been trying fruitlessly to get LTG and RbR to admit: that Obama successfully pursued a smart, targeted strategy optimized to get big margins in small states. We do not need to wait for "history" to see this.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Oops. Here is the link to the Washington Post article, "Strategy Was Based on Winning Delegates, not Battlegrounds".